Monday, 30 May 2011

From The Church Times Vault: The Joy of Darkness – What the Church can learn from Heavy Metal

As some of you will be aware, I write opinion pieces for The Church Times from time to time. I'm conscious that because a) its internet version is subscription only and b) there may be some of you (hehe) who don't regularly pick up a print copy, you may not have seen my scribblings. To kick things off, here's the one on Metal that got a few folk frothing last year. As you'll see it's much more academic/measured than some people have suggested. Enjoy!

As darkness falls we wait like supplicants expecting the manifestation of a god. Ripples of applause break out, yet how can sixty thousand people be so quiet? And then it begins – a single note rising through the still summer air. A note followed by a roar – the roar of sixty thousand throats full of joy and delight.

This is no religious ceremony, at least not in the conventional sense. This is Sonisphere, a major festival of one of Britain’s most ridiculed and despised popular music tribes: the Metal fan. And instead of a god we wait for those kings of the Metal stratosphere: Iron Maiden.

Of the major music genres, Heavy Metal is perhaps the most maligned. Since Black Sabbath effectively created it in 1969 by using the dissonant sound of the medieval ‘Devil's Chord’,  Heavy Metal has been cast as dumb, crass and, on occasions, satanic; music hardly fit for intelligent debate, let alone theological reflection. And yet, as both priest and metal musician and fan, it strikes me that the church, at this agonized time, has a serious gospel lesson to learn from this darkest and heaviest music.

Sonisphere brings together sixty thousand fans for a weekend of rocking to the kind of guitar riffs that turn your insides to pâté. It features everything you might expect from Metal and more. For the uninformed here’s a quick sketch: Musically, although it has many variations, Metal is characterized by a distorted, heavy guitar sound, with intense beats and muscular vocals. Songs cover any theme, but are unafraid to deal with death, violence and destruction, often in the first person. Lyrics like Metallica’s ‘Our brains are on fire with the feeling to kill/ And it won't go away/'til our dreams are fulfilled’ are not untypical. Metal fans are predominantly male and white and, as Sonisphere demonstrates, generally like tattoos, piercings and sport t-shirts supporting bands like Lamb of God and Apocalyptica. In addition, many bands have an anti-Christian stance. Slayer’s I laugh at the abortion known as Christianity/I've seen the ways of God/I'll take the devil any day/Hail Satan’ is typical. This is not promising material for a lesson in the gospel.

And yet, Metal culture demonstrates the liberative power of human honesty. As a Metal fan for twenty five years, I’ve found ‘Metal-heads’ graceful, welcoming and gentle. The music’s willingness to deal with nihilistic and, on occasion, nasty subjects, seems to offer its fans a space to be warm and accepting in a way which shames many Christians. Metal’s refusal to repress the bleak and violent truths of human nature liberates its fans to be more relaxed and fun people. Sadly, by contrast, some readings of Christian faith, with an overemphasis on personal holiness, so easily crumble into stifling niceness and smiling humourlessness. It is such Christianity that the likes of Slayer are repelled by. Metal has no fear of human ‘darkness’. It invites the church to discover a liberative theology of darkness: darkness not understood as negative and bad, but as a place of reality and possibility. The poet Henry Vaughan famously suggests that in God there is ‘a deep but dazzling darkness’. Clearly there are some Christians who are ‘unafraid of the dark’, but many are yet to discover its potential as a place of integration and wholeness. Metal has long understood that without the Dark we can never truly be whole.

Many Christians will be concerned about the ‘Satanic’ dimension of Metal. Clearly, as a priest I do not think that Christianity is ‘an abortion’ even if I am severely critical of it. Distinctions need to be drawn. Much of Metal’s fascination with Satan/Evil is play-acting, driven by a desire to shock; some of it is simply story-telling, vocalizing Evil in the way Milton did in Paradise Lost (though without his genius). And some of the recent so-called ‘Black Metal’ bands have consciously cultivated satanic images. But these ultra-heavy, growling bands do not especially trouble me. Their avowed views are simply this generation’s attempt to go to the most shocking place possible.

Metal invites Christianity to be less afraid of wildness, parody and the ridiculous. It is clear to me that, subconsciously, festivals like Sonisphere demonstrate a healthy understanding of the medieval concept of the Fools’ Feast. The Fools’ Feast temporarily allowed the world and its comfortable values to be disrupted and inverted through excess and licensed anarchy. Young people typically took the central roles and would choose their own mock bishop or lord to act as Lord of Misrule. Such wildness and parody never sat comfortably with Church power and was ultimately crushed. And yet festivals like Sonisphere recover the spirit of the Fools’ Feast – for the human spirit will always need to rebel against ordinariness. Thus, license to dress and behave ridiculously, over-indulge, and ridicule sacred cows. Metal fans, like most people, generally lead rather ordinary lives and in an ever more regulated culture, a Fools’ Feast is essential to human flourishing.

I worry that as we Anglicans live out our Christian sincerity we have an insufficient comprehension of the significance of the Fools’ Feast. We have perhaps too much of what Nietzsche called ‘Apollonian’ religion rather than ‘Dionysian’. That is, we can make our faith too reasonable, ordered, and controlled, rather than allowing it to flow with passion, foolishness and absurdity. I am not suggesting that as Christians we have all had a humour bypass, but we are inclined to take ourselves too seriously, even when we’re having fun. Now one might respond that, unlike Metal-heads, this is because Christians are involved in a genuinely serious activity. But if that is the case, surely that is only more reason to rediscover the liberating and disturbing quality of foolishness in our gospel living. For the fullness of human living surely demands it.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Do Not Be Afraid

Everyone enjoys a joke. Except some librarians. And most dictators. But apart from them, everyone likes a joke. Well, if you discount clowns. And possibly whoever was responsible for gagging the cart-wheeling verger the other week. 

Two weeks ago, I was particularly delighted when a friend told me a joke concerning me. What made it even better was that it was told with a straight face. As if it wasn't a joke.
We were enjoying an Italian lunch, yacking about the usual things -  how Brits go doolally in the face of pomp (apparently there had been a big wedding or summat the previous Friday), women bishops, being gay in the church, how is it possible that Vernon Kaye keeps getting work and so on - when she dropped into the conversation that a few months back my name had been mentioned in some newspaper twitter feed/blog/blah as one of the candidates for first woman bishop.

How I laughed...Would you buy a used car off me??

Once I'd stopped choking with laughter on my breadstick I pointed out very clearly why not only would hell have to freeze over but it would have to open an all-night skating rink before I would be considered bishop material. Firstly, if the Church of England couldn't consecrate Jeffrey John, then it sure the hell couldn't go for me. EVER.; secondly, there are clearly lots of talented, polite and actually rather marvellous women who I would cheer should they be picked on for the role; thirdly, given my bold and radical (by 'radical' many people would say 'heretical', 'silly' and 'idiotic') reflections on church I'll be lucky to be offered another job; and, fourthly, and most importantly, I am precisely the kind of unsafe, opinionated, and unthinking fool that those responsible for ensuring the 'smooth image' of the church I suspect rather despise. Which brings me to my point.

One of the dimensions of the 'masonic flying bishop-gate' event this weekend ( I wish I was making this up) is the extent to which appointing him sends out unhelpful messages to the media, society and to parishes. Now I have no wish to comment on the specifics of this event, but I am intrigued by the extent to which the Church of England has become fascinated with managing information, image and identity. 

Clearly it is the case that bishops do attract media attention, Rowan and John Sentamu most directly. Their words are scrutinized and, on occasion, taken out of context. As such, I do understand why these figures are cautious about image and have advisory staff who are inclined to make of them 'smooth men'. I understand and, yet, there is a huge part of me that weeps at this situation and actually is inclined to see this as a sign of an institution losing such edge as it once had.

I know that many liberal/radical Christians like myself have experienced disappointment during Rowan's tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury; there is a sense that he has not been as bold or as radical as many on the Christian left had hoped. I have shared this, though there are no doubt substantial reasons - political, administrative, personal, theological - why he has not been what some have hoped. He is - in my view - one of the supreme intelligences in the UK, religious or otherwise, but the role of Archbishop is almost impossible to wear well.

Picture of a Bishop
  My concern is that the fear of the media and the appointment of safe clergy to bishops' roles may mean the appointment of eccentric, bold characters to the episcopate becomes ever rarer. When I think back to bishops who actually mattered to me in my formative years - when I was an admittedly critically-minded, intellectually ambitious teenager - I inevitably think of David Jenkins. His thoughtful and very honest theological explorations were of course parodied in the press and his appointment as bishop was massively controversial in some quarters. But whatever else he was, he was interesting, immensely intelligent and genuinely engaging and he gave many of us hope. His appointment was rare, but I fear that today it would be practically impossible. The smooth men would not have it. I pray that I am wrong.

It may seem lazy and cliched to claim that the Church has never been about being safe, but as I see it, this claim is true. My anxiety is that, as it continues to shrink, the church will become ever more desperate to protect what it has and will continue to miss the opportunities to be as bold and risky in its 'leadership' as it it called to be.